Reflectively in the Humanities:
A Cross-Cultural Study
Marva A. Barnett
Summary of Work in Progress
of the study
part because thinking involves extraordinarily complex mental
processes, it is intellectually healthy to know what types of
thinking we value. Thus I have undertaken a study of quality,
educated, reflective thinking: the thinking so often prized in
the humanities as central to developing well-informed, astute
citizens. (The term reflective thinking comes to me,
with my gratitude from John Dewey, How We Think, NY: D.C.
Heath, 1933.) Certainly, interest in how we think dates back at
least to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates and manifests itself in
many works on critical and creative thinking published in the
last two decades.
shed new light on these issues in the United States, I compare
educated American, French, and English peoples perceptions
of the thinking they value and ways in which such skills are developed.
These two Western cultures represent traditions, educational systems,
and values different from those of Americans, yet not hugely variant;
comparisons thus highlight subtle distinctions in value systems
and styles of thinking.
nearly 100 informants are in most cases teachers and students
at highly regarded academic institutions of secondary and higher
education in their respective countries, including the University
of Cambridge, the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, the University
of Virginia. They responded on audiotape to several open-ended
questions about their perceptions of and experiences with effective
thinking. In looking for similarities and differences among
the perceptions of people inside each culture and among the different
cultures of these three countries, I of course also encounter
the effects of a variety of other cultures, such as
informants academic disciplines, work environment, age,
family background, and so on. This study works with these different
perspectives to develop insights into reflective thinking.
of reflective thinking
surprisingly, despite some cultural differences associated with
geography and academic discipline, those interviewed generally
believe that reflective humanistic thinking includes some basic
attributes, including these:
thinking is a habit of mind and systematic.
thinkers are open-minded.
thinking is individual, manifesting itself in diverse ways,
thinkers are tenacious, persevering in asking questions and
are will to take some risks.
are willing take on the challenge of thinking reflectively.
find reflective thinking satisfying.
thinkers think in these ways:
proceed from a sense of curiosity, or inquiry.
are self-reflective, recognizing the need to examine ones
take evidence into account.
thinking is ordered, developed (some would say logical).
think for a purpose; their thinking has appropriate aims.
evaluate throughout the process but save final evaluation
and decision for the end, after having questioned, reflected,
examined evidence, ordered their thoughts and evidence.
evaluated, they proceed to develop a clear argument meant
course, the act of thinking requires that one perform these thinking
tasks and maintain these states of mind in interactive, iterative,
and complex ways; reflective thinking thus resembles a musical
fugue. By comparing and contrasting diverse cultural perspectives
on these attributes of reflective thinking, I am working to define
and expand each attribute, hoping eventually to provoke others
to reconsider their own understanding of thinking in the humanities.